October 3, 2015 § 5 Comments
I’ve set aside today to read. My usual routine for days like this is to make prodigious amounts of tea, put the “fireplace” video on the television and pretend I’m stranded in a Scottish Inn. The video operates under the same concept as the Yule Log. Which, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is played during the holidays on public television – transforming television screens across America into burning fireplaces. Classical music plays as the logs burn down, though why they (by they I am of course referring to the visionaries who recognized the market demand a video of burning logs fills) can’t just use the crackling sounds of an actual fire is beyond me. The particular video I have access to also includes artistic close-ups of portions of the fire, further destroying the illusion of your-tv-as-fireplace. We can only assume this (along with the music) is a balm to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity, or perhaps a way to pacify the Gas Fireplace Manufacturers of America who might view televised fireplaces as a competing market.
As usual there’s a stack of books I want to get to. At the moment my focus is on finishing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. He has a remarkable authorial voice – and his personality shines through this and the first book of his Trilogy of Memory: The Journey. What I wanted to talk about, though, is the wonderful supplemental material Deep Vellum included with each book. Two Introductions – written by Enrique Vila-Matas (for The Art of Flight) & Álvaro Enrigue (for The Journey). Álvaro Enrigue’s is your standard overview: explaining the author’s work and its importance in an essay called Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy. Vila-Matas’ introduction is a bit more personal. He draws a wonderful portrait of Sergio Pitol in his own, very brief, essay entitled Pitol in the Rain. The two men (Vila-Matas & Pitol) are friends; and Vila-Matas mentions the little details, the small quirks of personality, which true friends treasure. Thanks to Vila-Matas we discover that Sergio Pitol is a bit of a hypochondriac and is continuously losing (and recovering) his eyeglasses.
‘I remember the day because there was a pounding rain and Sergio was constantly losing his glasses; the latter was not at all unusual, his penchant for losing and then finding his glasses being legendary. That day he lost them several times, in various bookstores and cafes, as if that were the perfect antidote for not losing his umbrella. I recalled the day that Juan Villoro had found in Pitol’s tendency to lose his glasses a clue to illuminating new aspects of his poetics: “Sergio writes in that hazy region of someone who loses his eyeglasses on purpose; he pretends that his originality is an attribute of his bad eyesight…”
Pitol in the Rain is only a few pages long, but every word is full of affection and friendship. Readers are left in no doubt that Pitol is a man much loved by those fortunate enough to know him personally.
How often can biographies, let alone introductions and afterwards, make that claim? I often find that the more I learn about an author the more disillusioned I become. But, from what I’ve read so far – The Journey in its entirety and a good portion of The Art of Flight – Pitol is far from a bad boy or glamorous member of the Literati. Though he seems to have come in contact, and frequently developed lasting relationships, with some of the most important writers of the times his writing is amazingly scandal and gossip free. His anecdotes are amusing because he finds them amusing, and always good-naturedly so. I get the feeling the members of the Algonquin Round Table would find him a bore and he would feel the same of them. He lacks their sting, yet is as charming as any one of them could wish to be.
George Henson’s translation captures the author’s lightness and guileless enthusiasm for life and literature. He’s also done an admirable job of keeping the strand of Pitol’s prose from becoming tangled in the author’s convoluted labyrinth of memory. Henson, too, seems to have succumbed to Sergio’s charm despite their having never met. In the translator’s note Henson describes the pressure of translating without an author’s collaboration. Particularly when the author is a much celebrated translator, himself. He explains the reason for the absence of authorial input (which I won’t go into) and ends the paragraph with an email he received from Pitol (which I will) – “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language I adore and in which none of my books exist.”
I found those two sentences incredibly touching, – particularly the words happiness, gratitude and adore. The more I read the more it becomes apparent that Pitol possessed a rare and self-effacing intelligence. Those three words are representative of the author, or at least how I’ve come to think of him through the his books. Many things seem to have filled Sergio Pitol with adoration, happiness and gratitude. We can all be grateful that he took the time to write some of those things down.
September 30, 2015 § 2 Comments
A little over a week I was at the Brooklyn Festival. The weather was beautiful – a warm and windy Fall day. Due to the construction happening around Borough Hall everything was a little more spread out this year. The Hall’s grand steps, featured in every article about the festival and usually completely filled with people, stood empty behind a chain link fence. Food trucks were parked in front of the Cadman Plaza Post Office, a little farther down than their normal spots. The Post Office steps functioned as an al fresco dining area where Lori, my Festival buddy, and I enjoyed some delicious (if overpriced) empanadas mid-day. The new set-up also utilized a section of park around the Korean War Memorial which usually stands empty, filling it with the booths belonging to the smaller literary magazines. I liked it. In fact, I hope they continue using it next year – hopefully moving the booths out of the too narrow, sad walkway adjacent to the Courthouse that no one really likes.
After several years of attendance one thing I’ve learned is that the moderator has the ability to make or break a panel. This was painfully reinforced at Darkness & Light – a panel which featured an extraordinary line-up of international authors: Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark), László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) & Andrés Neuman (Argentina/Spain). Krasznahorkai, I can’t be alone in believing, will eventually win the Nobel. Which adds a certain prestige to the whole enterprise. People develop expectations. Which is why the moderator must have been a last minute substitution, after the original moderator was struck down with cholera or the bubonic plague. That’s the only logical explanation. Because it was immediately clear he hadn’t read any of the authors’ books. In fact, he did everything to avoid talking about them altogether. Instead he followed a painful line of questions which included reading aloud Genesis 1:3 and asking the panelists to comment (because Europeans don’t feel Americans are religious enough); discussing the length of daylight in the different time zones where they are from; and ENDING the panel by having them talk about whether they felt print books vs. digital readers (which have built in light sources – he actually included that as a qualifier) were effecting how they wrote and/or how their books were enjoyed. The panel is called light and dark, get it??? You think it’s a metaphor – but noooo, he meant it literally. SURPRISE!
No rotten fruit was available to the audience, and I’d already eaten my empanadas. And so this madness was allowed to play out unchecked.
Each author did give a brief reading at the beginning, before anyone realized what was in store. László chose to read his passage first in English and then, movingly, in Hungarian. Most of the audience questions were, not surprisingly, directed at László and mostly pertained to his work in film. Luckily, Neuman and Aidt were on other panels later in the day. And Laszlo did sign my copies of Satantango & Seiobo There Below afterwards – one personalized to me and the other to my husband. If, after that, you still feel you might have missed something the video of the panel is up on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.
On the other end of the spectrum – as wonderful as the before mentioned panel was terrible – The New Latin American Literature: A View From Within had an incredible line-up of authors. Yuri Herrera, Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, Andrés Neuman (again) and Alejandro Zambra. Daniel Alarcon acted as moderator. The discussion covered a variety of topics – magical realism and The Boom, writing for an English speaking audience, life in Mexico City and (as the title says) the state of Latin American literature today. Overall it was an incredibly vibrant 60 minutes, one of the few events I’ve ever attended which conveyed a sense of the camaraderie we like to imagine exists among writers. I left believing The New Latin American Literature was a real movement rather than just a pretext on which to organize a panel.
Despite the numbers he was working with Alarcon engaged each writer individually, asking questions which showcased their personalities & interests. Alejandro Zambra came across as the most defiant of the group, while Guadalupe Nettel seemed to be the most socially & politically involved (a journalist herself, she was the only one to bring up the killing of journalists in Mexico). Luiselli brought up, not for the first time, the generation of Latin American writers who came immediately after The Boom and are still waiting to be translated into English. Andrés Neuman – whose short story collection I knew I had somewhere (wrongfully neglected) on my bookshelves – displayed a thoughtful, intellectual side. I found his book, The Things We Don’t Do published by Open Letter, immediately upon arriving home. I can’t wait to start reading it.
There were other panels and more than one new discovery. Imperium, when described by the author Christian Kracht, seems a much more intriguing book than its marketing conveys. I heard the Congolese author of Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, give a spirited reading from his novel in French – and quietly laughed as his British translator strove valiantly to emulate that passion but was hindered by being… well… a little too British. I also spent some time and money at the Feminist Press booth. I finally own a copy of Virginie Despentes King Kong Theory. But my favorite purchase of the day was without a doubt the anthology The Shipwrecked: Contemporary Stories by Women from Iran.
The Brooklyn Book Festival, despite its being held in September, always serves as the mile marker of my year in books. It’s where I go to see the authors who excited me in the months preceding and where I discover the authors who’ll occupy me for the weeks that remain. I imagine that there are dozens of similar, if not larger and better, book festivals happening throughout the year that I know nothing about. So I’m throwing out a question – do you have a festival which plays the same, or a similar, role for you?
September 9, 2015 § 4 Comments
Title: Hollow Heart
Author: Viola Di Grado
Translator: Antony Shugaar / Italian
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 271 1
“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe
“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett
Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions. Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath. To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence. The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive. Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.
The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak. Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive. Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her. She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.
Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…
I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.
Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.” Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.
I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable. Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide. She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad. But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form. Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges. You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned. Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.
August 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
The weekend before last an Indie Book Flea was held outside of the Brooklyn Public Library. I was there with Lori from TNBBC because, let’s be honest, we’re geeks who live for that kind of thing. There was a bunch of great publishers and chapbook presses there and I ended up buying from quite a few of them – Seven Stories, One Story, Ugly Duckling Presse, Double Cross Press – all of whom I plan to talk about in the weeks after WITMonth (aka – Women In Translation Month). But right now I want to talk about some really exciting news I heard at the Other Press table.
The Swedish author Therese Bohman, whose novel Drowned I reviewed in 2012 and which remains on my favorite-books-of-all-time shelf, has a new novel coming out in English in February, 2016. The title is The Other Woman. Marlaine Delargy is again translating. Below is the description from the Penguin Random House website (Other Press is an imprint) –
She works at Norrköping Hospital, at the very bottom of the hierarchy: in the cafeteria, below the doctors, the nurses, and the nursing assistants. But she dreams of one day becoming a writer, of moving away and reinventing herself.
Carl Malmberg, an older, married doctor at the hospital, catches her eye. She begins an intense affair with him, though struggling with the knowledge that he may never be hers. At the same time, she realizes that their attraction to each other is governed by their differences in social status. As her doubts increase, the revelation of a secret no one could have predicted forces her to take her own destiny in hand.
The news had me picking up my copy of Drowned again and revisiting my old review from 2012. Everything I wrote then still holds true today (which is always a relief), though I did make a new connection I didn’t make back then. Last year I read the Château d’Argol by Julien Gracq, tr. Louise Varése – an example of both Gothicism and German Romanticism. Drowned, which also uses nature as symbolism and foreshadowing, shares many of the same techniques and themes – albeit written in a more straight forward prose style.
Click on the cover to read my review of Therese Bohman’s Drowned.
August 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Diving Pool – Three Novellas
Author: Yoko Ogawa
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Picador, New York (2008)
ISBN: 978 0 312 42683 5
The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
The compassion Yoko Ogawa shows her protagonists, despite their flaws, consistently surprises me. These three early novellas – and novella seems a bit of a grandiose term for what are, essentially, three unrelated short stories – each feature a first person, female narrator. They are collected under the title: The Diving Pool, which is also the title of the first novella. The three women, aging from early teens to mid-thirties, are not the most likeable of characters. In fact, much of what we learn about them seems designed to repulse us.
Ogawa has an affinity for the first person narrator. Like her 2013 book of short stories, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales – The Diving Pool exclusively uses the “I” perspective. The writing is disturbingly confessional in tone. Taken together, these two characteristics make it tempting to classify Ogawa’s work as part of the Japanese I-Novel tradition.* Ogawa’s protagonists disclose their darkest secrets to the reader. They reveal shameful actions, though not always the motivations behind them. They are perhaps the most reliable of narrators in that they tell us things we don’t wish to hear.
The Diving Pool is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three novellas. It’s also the most difficult to summarize. The narrator, a teenage girl, grows up neglected by her parents as they tend to the needs of the many foster children they have taken into their home – an orphanage called The Lighthouse. Lonely and increasingly isolated, she develops a crush on one of her foster brothers and secretly spends her afternoons at the swimming pool watching him practice his diving. If this were another writer I’d say that the situation escalates, but “escalation” is too aggressive a word to apply to Ogawa. The girl does a terrible thing; in truth has a history of doing terrible things. The story is a perfect coalescing of the themes which obsess Ogawa – loneliness, isolation, everyday acts of desperation and cruelty.
Then, while she had her back turned, I slipped behind the kitchen door. After a few moments, the dirt on her hands began to bother her again and she dropped the shovel and bucket at her feet and stood staring at her palms. Finally, she turned for help toward the spot where I should have been sitting. As it dawned on her that I wasn’t there, that she’d been left alone, she began crying in earnest. Her sobs were violent, seemingly about to rupture inside her, and they were satisfying my cruel urge. I wanted her to cry even harder, and everything seemed perfectly arranged: no one would come to pick her up, I would be able to listen to my heart’s content, and she was too young to tell anyone afterward.
I stopped reading and put this book away for 6 months after finishing The Diving Pool.
Slightly less devastating, Dormitory features a woman in her early thirties who is waiting to join her husband in Sweden. He has found work there and has gone on ahead to settle their living arrangements. She spends her days alone, seldom leaving her home. “My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season…. I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.” One day a younger cousin calls asking for her help finding a place to live. He is beginning his first semester at university and knew from other family members that she’d been happy with the dormitory she’d stayed at while in school. Six years have passed since she’d graduated, but she offered to contact the manager. “That was how I came to renew my ties with the dormitory.”
“There’s one thing I forgot to mention,” I said, finally bringing up the subject that had been on my mind all day. My cousin turned to look at me, waiting expectantly for me to continue. “The Manager is missing one leg and both arms.” There was a short silence.
“One leg and both arms,” he repeated at last.
“His left leg, to be precise.”
“What happened to him?
“I’m not sure. An accident, I suppose. There were rumors – that he’d been caught in some machine or was in a car wreck. No one could ever manage to ask him, but it must have been something awful.”
“That’s for sure,” my cousin said, looking down as he kicked a pebble.
“But he can do everything for himself – cook, get dressed, get around. He can use a can opener, a sewing machine, anything, so you won’t even notice after a while. When you’ve been around him, it somehow doesn’t seem to be very important. I just didn’t want you to be shocked when you meet him.”
“I see what you mean,” my cousin said, kicking another pebble.
Her cousin moves into the dormitory, in fact seems to be the only student staying there, and through him the narrator also renews her acquaintance with the dormitory manager. A strange friendship forms between them, the narrator and Manager. Through a series of visits a semblance of a plot begins to emerge – but Dormitory seems more of an exercise in atmosphere and sensory exploration. Like many of Ogawa’s stories it is incredibly cinematic. She layers sound, visual images, dialogue, even cuts in and out of scenes. It’s easy to imagine Dormitory being made into a short, noir-style film… perhaps by a student film-maker. The final image is profoundly haunting, – and this in a story filled with haunting imagery.
Pregnancy Diary, actually the second in order of appearance, is structured pretty much as the title implies. A woman, living with her sister and her sister’s husband, begins keeping a diary to track her sister’s pregnancy. As the weeks progress it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right here… though I could never quite put my finger on what.
Unapologetically, Ogawa puts her damaged characters on the page and confronts us with their actions, using the first person perspective like a weapon to force our complicity. By exposing these women so completely it would be easy to think she didn’t care, but there is a definite protectiveness to her portrayals. She doesn’t hold them up for judgement, in fact I’d say it is just the opposite. She treats them with gentleness and dignity – handling them more carefully than she does her readers. There is also a visceral quality to her writing which reminds me of Naja Marie Aidt (who I’ll be reviewing next week) and other women writers I admire. Physical cruelty, the emotionally abhorrent, the grotesque – Yoko Ogawa’s writing doesn’t shy away from the less attractive aspects of biology or human nature.
*As far as I know, and my understanding of the Japanese I-Novel has never been very good, the I- or True Novel genre requires an autobiographical narrative. So in A True Novel by Minae Mizumura the author places herself into the story as a character and as part of the framing device. Ogawa, again as far as I know, never places herself into her narratives. Though her narrators for the most part remain unnamed.